Dell Inspiron 15z review: This Ultrabook packs a touchscreen, but not much performance

At a Glance
  • Dell Inspiron 15z

    PCWorld Rating

    The Inspiron 15z might appeal to Windows 8 users in search of a touchscreen option that won't break the bank, but its mediocre performance and subpar battery life fail to impress.

The Dell Inspiron 15z joins a growing group of Windows 8 laptops offering a touchscreen display option, so you can either point and click or swipe your way around Windows 8 Home Edition on its 15.6-inch, 1366-by-768-pixel screen. It’s a nice-looking package that also boasts a built-in 8x DVD+-RW drive and above-average audio and webcam hardware. But its performance, while certainly adequate, isn’t stellar—and along with poor battery life and somewhat high power consumption—render it unremarkable for its $800 price tag (as of mid-February 2013).

Good looks, nice audio

At nearly 5.5 pounds (a non-touchscreen version weighs just over 4.75 pounds), the Inspiron 15z is on the heavy side for an Ultrabook. The weight comes as a bit of a surprise since it’s actually fairly slim—less than an inch thick—-for its rather large wide-screen footprint.

The Inspiron 15z makes a fine first impression, with a gray brushed-aluminum finish set into a silvery matte frame with pleasingly rounded edges on its top and interior surfaces. The black island chiclet keys light up when you touch them, and the display itself is very bright—though not as crisp as it would be on a smaller screen with the same resolution.

I loved the keyboard’s backlight and the keys are well spaced, but I would have liked some sculpting to help keep my fingers more firmly anchored. Dell provides a large, responsive multi-touch touchpad for those who prefer traditional point-and-click navigation, but the display itself is also pleasingly responsive.

Aside from the keyboard and touchpad, there are only a few hardware buttons on the inside surface. The power button is set into the left-side hinge, and Dell’s usual trio of laptop buttons are on the top right: one summons Windows Mobility and Dell customization settings, one cycles through the Waves Maxx Sense audio presets, and one launches a user-assigned program or function.

The Skullcandy stereo speakers are located on the underside of the chassis, but towards the front edge where it gently curves up so they aren’t blocked when you place the Inspiron 15z on a flat surface. It’s not ideal—it would be better if they were completely exposed—but the audio was quite robust for a laptop. The built-in high-def (720p) webcam proved capable, capturing sharp images and adjusting for ambient lighting.

Four USB 3.0 ports, but no 5GHz Wi-Fi

Disappointingly, the Inspiron 15z only supports 2.4GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi; it can’t connect to 5GHz networks, which are much less congested. In my tests in downtown San Francisco, YouTube videos frequently paused as I was knocked offline.

On the plus side, you get four USB 3.0 ports (one with PowerShare, meaning it can charge peripherals even when the laptop is powered down). Two (including the PowerShare port) are located on the left edge, behind the headset-mic jack and in front of HDMI and gigabit ethernet ports; the other two are on the right edge, between a SD/MMC/Memory Stick Pro card reader and the optical drive.

Performance: Not bad, not terrific

The Inspiron 15z didn’t shine on our tests—nor would we expect it to, given its configuration: It’s based on a midrange mobile CPU—Intel’s 1.7GHz —Core i5-3317u (see Editor's Note, below) and relies on that chip’s Intel HD Graphics 4000 core. It’s outfitted with 6GB of DDR3 memoryand a 500GB, 5400 rpm hard drive.

It’s not that the 15z ever tanked; it just generally lagged a bit behind similarly configured competitors (and it certainly suffered by comparison to systems equipped with discrete graphics). Startup, for example, was a bit slow for an Ivy Bridge system with SSD caching—nearly 16 seconds—but that’s a much startup than systems that don’t have SSD caching. Scores and times on pretty much all tests we perform, for everything from video and audio encoding to browser scripting and file compression, were all low compared to the competition.

And the 15z is definitely not a gaming notebook: Its gaming scores, were also mediocre. Finally, the 15z’s power consumption was a bit on the high side, averaging 9.4 watts when idle—and its less than 3.5 hours of battery life makes it a poor choice for travelers.

The Inspiron 15z might appeal to people interested in using Windows 8 with a touchscreen at locations where they can plug in to a wall outlet, but it’s too heavy and its battery life is too skimpy for people on the move.

Editor's Note: Dell recently updated the Inspiron 15z lineup with newer Intel CPUs. At this price point, the Inspiron 15z is now outfitted with an Intel Core i5-3337U, with a clock speed that's slightly faster (1.8GHz versus 1.7GHz) than the CPU installed in the machine we reviewed.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    The Inspiron 15z might appeal to Windows 8 users in search of a touchscreen option that won't break the bank, but its mediocre performance and subpar battery life fail to impress.

    Pros

    • Large and wide touchscreen
    • Good audio performance
    • HD (720p) webcam
    • Built-in rewritable DVD drive

    Cons

    • Sluggish performance
    • Poor battery life
    • Heavy for an Ultrabook
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